When faced with discrepancies between truth and legend, the guardians of rock-’n’-roll history tend to follow the advice of the late Tony Wilson and “print the legend.”
One has to ask a chap with a past as legendarily chequered as Hugh Dillon, then, if the messy personal circumstances that saw the Headstones finally blow apart at the seams in 2003 were really as a bad as popular lore makes them out to be.
“Yeah, it was bad,” affirms the good-humoured Dillon, long sober but still intense at 56. “It just fell apart. With the state of music at the time and the Spice Girls and the horsesh–, nobody gave a f—, y’know? And out of Nirvana and all the greatness that was the early ’90s, by the end of it we were f—ed, just drug addicts and alcoholics, and there was no coming back from it.
“Luckily we all have great families and we’ve got great people around us. My wife was a huge part of it, a huge part of it, and to this day I have the finest rock ‘n’ roll manager in the world, Bernie Breen, who managed the Tragically Hip and still manages the band and my acting career. Anybody else would have kept us on the road — anybody, because that’s their bread and butter — but Bernie just said, ‘Y’know, nobody wants to see you die.’ And the good news was our bass player, Tim White, was also saying ‘We can’t continue.’ It was one of those moments. That was my whole life, but to walk away from it really enabled me to save my life and to figure out how to clean up.”
Stepping away from rock ‘n’ roll was no small feat for Dillon, as that was all he’d ever really wanted to do, and by any means necessary. He would not be dissuaded. In his late teens, his mom packed him off from his hometown of Kingston — where he was primarily known for dealing drugs but one of his early dabblings in rock “professionalism” was doing lights for Gord Downie’s first band, the Slinks — overseas to London hoping that he’d clean up his act. Instead he spent the next five years living in squats, busking for booze money in the Tube and in Leicester Square and generally learning how to become an even more authentic gutter punk at the source.
Ultimately, the thing that would finally knock Dillon off course after actually fronting a notably ass-whuppin’ rock band for 15 years — one whose snarling breed of punk-derived heaviness sufficiently caught the grunge-era zeitgeist to give it unlikely mainstream prominence in Canada with early albums like 1993’s “Picture of Health,” 1995’s “Teeth and Tissue” and 1997’s “Smile and Wave” — was heroin. His umpteenth relapse into addiction came after the release of 2002’s “The Oracle of Hi-Fi,” and this time it was evident to all around him that a life-or-death situation was developing.
Dillon chose life, luckily, and soon found himself enjoying a second life as a film and TV actor. He’d established that he could do the gig after essentially playing his old, nihilistic self as Joe Dick in Bruce McDonald’s terrific adaptation of “Hard Core Logo” in 1996, but by 2007 he was suddenly a familiar face on national TV playing cops, of all things, on series such as The Movie Network’s “Durham County” and CTV’s “Flashpoint.” He’s currently playing a sheriff again on pal Taylor Sheridan’s hit U.S. Kevin Costner series “Yellowstone,” which he concedes is indeed rather amusing “if you know the back story.”
It’s been a pretty spectacular, and unforeseen, turnaround. And now that the reformed Headstones are firing up again toward the Oct. 25 release of their best album in a couple of decades, the no-fuss, old-school-punk barnburner “PEOPLESKILLS,” Dillon is more than a little gobsmacked that he’s been able to return to his first true love, music, and still find not just willing co-conspirators in his much-abused longtime bandmates White and Trent Carr and producer/co-writer Chris Osti but an actual audience for what the Headstones do.
No label would touch the prospect of a new Headstones album after the band — these days a six-piece that also includes Steve Carr, Rickferd Van Dyk and Jesse Labovitz — reunited to play a benefit gig for a dying friend’s young son in 2011, realized they were past the “bullsh–” and decided to record again. Yet they were able to crowdfund what would become 2013’s “Love + Fury” within 24 hours. “Devil’s On Fire” from the Headstones’ next reunion album, 2017’s “Little Army,” subsequently became the band’s first-ever No. 1 hit on the rock-radio charts.
“Well, I got kinda lucky in that I didn’t plan it. I thought we were done and over and I think that’s why this is just, like, stunning. On every level. On every level,” says Dillon, admitting that even during the drive to new label Cadence Music’s office in rapidly gentrifying Corktown for this interview he was struck by what a wild ride he’s had. “I drive by places where I go, ‘F—, I had a bad experience there’ or ‘But I had a great experience there.’ It’s black-and-white kind of feelings sometimes. It was so low and it was so high.
“This was today: I remember scoring drugs on the bad strip over there and I had a terrible job because I’d just moved back from England and I was driving a fork truck and I remember the foreman was just such a f—in’ dick and I hated the job so much that I put the forks up and drove them straight into the f—in’ load and walked away, not knowing that I was gonna have another job. I wanted to play music and I couldn’t handle it and I was paid f— all. And then as I was turning the corner to come here, I was, like, ‘Oh, hey, ‘Flashpoint’ shot on the roof of that building once.’ ”
The Headstones will stage ‘PEOPLESKILLS’ grand Toronto unveiling at the Phoenix on Dec. 7, to be followed by another cross-Canada trek as soon as Dillon’s busy acting schedule permits. He’s got a couple more projects in the works with Sheridan, he confides, while his moviemaking buddy also just sent word that “Motorcade,” a Dylan-esque new number from ‘PEOPLESKILLS,’ will feature in his next film “Those Who Wish Me Dead,” starring Angelina Jolie.
Being back onstage is where it’s at, though.
“When I left, you could still smoke onstage. And we did. So to come back to there’s no smoking and everybody’s got phones was a little bit of an adjustment,” he laughs. “I was on the fence with all of it until I embraced it. It’s magical.
“It’s magical. And then to be able to do things that I didn’t know (about) back then that I can do now. I’ve learned so much about filmmaking so we make these great little videos and make cinematic little pieces that go with the music. I control the artwork. I love the whole process. And now it’s all in, and I love the ability to work with guys I know and trust and who I’ve known forever because that chemistry — you can’t find it, you can’t make it, it is there. Tim and Trent have been friends since they were 10 and we’ve been friends for f—in’ ever and it’s amazing.
“And on the road is fun. We laugh our asses off. We have the weird luxury of being this weird, little Canadian band because that prevents us from getting burned out or overplaying. That doesn’t happen to us. So when we want to play from coast to coast in this country, when we go and it’s been building, we go hard and it’s exciting. We don’t go ‘Oh, f—, we’re here again?’
“Every show becomes an assault. Well, maybe that’s not the right word, but we don’t phone it in. Now we make sure we stay in places we like to stay in and go to restaurants we like going to and when it’s time to play, it goes off and we have the ability to get where we want to go faster and have it be stronger and meaner, in a sense.
“We’re honest and committed. It’s the old thing: we love it. So if we happen to get lucky or anybody else responds, that’s great.”